After I had my daughter, I stopped thinking. There was so much to do—changing diapers, nursing, cleaning pump parts, doing laundry, etc.—that I had no time for it. So, I stopped.
I remember realizing I’d stopped thinking somewhere in those muddy first months with my daughter. I felt relieved. It struck me that the problem with my life up to that point had been the thinking, the analyzing, the working through all of it, the trying to understand. What had any of that thinking ever done for me? Certainly less than holding a baby, warm and sleeping, on my shoulder.
This period of not thinking lasted for two years. A lot happened: Trump got elected, the baby grew into a walking and talking toddler, we moved to St. Louis and then back to Springfield, everyone aged.
A year ago or so, my brain came back to me. At first it was slow, not used to being used. I discovered, with some surprise, that I had missed it after all.
It was my birthday last week and I’m in a reflective mood. I’ve learned a lot over the past year, and I feel like my brain has worked harder, though maybe it just feels that way because it was gone for so long.
Remember “Flowers from Algernon,” that science fiction story in which the intellectually disabled man, Charlie, is given a surgery that eventually turns him into a genius? I read the abridged version of that story in eighth grade, and I found the full version and read it again, and it’s still good.
At the end of “Flowers for Algernon,” the surgery’s effects go away and Charlie loses his intelligence. The mouse on whom the surgery has also been performed dies, and the implication is that Charlie will soon die, too.
I feel like Charlie. I don’t think I’m dying— except in the way that all of us are, a little bit every day—but I do feel like I’m getting smarter, though I’m obviously no genius nor have I ever been intellectually disabled. I also feel like my brain might only be mine temporarily; it went away once, and it could happen again. The past year has been tainted by a kind of desperation related to this idea: I must learn everything I can as quickly as can, before I stop thinking again.
Desperation is rarely a positive thing, but I think it’s been good for me. I had this idea recently that I might be moving toward some truth about the world, on the verge of some discovery. I said this to my husband, and then we both laughed and laughed. How ridiculous is it, to think you’re on the verge of discovering something?
I’m reading Marx: A Very Short Introduction, though, and it strikes me that many men throughout history believed they had discovered universal truths. Marx was among them. I do believe Marx discovered some truth. But still, the audacity!
Back in 2016 Kylie Jenner said this, and we all thought it was very funny (and it was):
Society takes Karl Marx more seriously than it does Kylie Jenner, which seems highly appropriate, all things considered. I’m not advocating for anything the Kardashian-Jenners are selling. Still, I guess it’s postmodern to laugh at the idea of discovering truth, and Marx is lucky postmodernism wasn’t a thing when he was alive. If we had a gif of Marx saying he’s realizing stuff, we’d all think it was very funny (and it would be). What I’m saying is: postmodernism makes life tough for Kylie Jenner. Also for me, personally, since I feel like this year was the year of realizing stuff.
One practice that’s helped me realize stuff is something I’ve written about before: a yearlong break from reading books by straight white cisgender men. This was helpful in many ways, most obviously in that it recalibrated my ability to identify badly written female characters.
It also helped me in a way that is more difficult to name. I’m generalizing wildly, but it seems like women, people of color, and LGBT people tend to write in a less definitive way, a way that says—at most—“here is my truth” but never “here is the truth.”
This kind of writing is empowering, not in the obvious way (though that, too, representation matters!), but in a more subtle way: when someone writes with less of an ego, there is more room for the reader. Some readers need room to ask their own questions, which I know because it turns out I’m one of those readers. Having room is part of what’s helped me think again, helped me become my own version of Charlie and Kylie Jenner.
Last week I read Ursela Le Guin’s 1989 commencement address to Bryn Mawr for the first time. In it she talks about the language of power, “the father tongue,” which she contrasts with the “mother tongue,” the language of the oppressed. It’s fascinating and powerful, and then she gets to the third language, the “unlearned language,” and it becomes revelatory.
So what am I talking about with this “unlearned language” – poetry, literature? Yes, but it can be speeches and science, any use of language when it is spoken, written, read, heard as art, the way dancing is the body moving as art…This is a wedding and welding back together of the alienated consciousness that I’ve been calling the father tongue and the undifferentiated engagement that I’ve been calling the mother tongue. This is their baby, this baby talk, the language you can spend your life trying to learn.
In my first post on this blog, I wrote about the way I thought about art, how I wanted to define it as broadly as possible, how my art was “putting lotion on my freshly bathed daughter” or “finally learning to take two ibuprofen before the migraine gets bad.”
I didn’t know what I meant when I wrote that, I had only just started thinking again after a two year break. Maybe without fully realizing it, though, I’d arrived at something Le Guin is naming. Is the art I described the same as the “way dancing is the body moving as art”? If so, I needed this year to work backward towards understanding that, and it’s been a good year. If not, well, it’s been a good year anyway.
One thing I want to learn how to do is take my art seriously, postmodernism be damned. When I say “my art” I mean it in the way Le Guin does, or how I think she does: as some true, essential part of myself and the hope I have for a different kind of world, which sometimes reveals itself on the edges of the world we currently inhabit.
A friend sent me this interview with Mary Oliver, which is worth reading. Oliver was so good at seeing the world, and beautiful things in the world, and in this interview she talks about those edges, that art.
Sometimes I think Le Guin’s kind of art is the only thing that matters, and I feel angry at the world, for undervaluing the most valuable thing, for pushing it to the edges, for making it so that I feel relieved to stop thinking for awhile.
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved there is a great and terrible scene in which one of the central characters, Paul D., is thinking about his multiple failed attempts at escaping slavery:
And in all those escapes he could not help being astonished by the beauty of this land that was not his. He hid in its breast, fingered its earth for food, clung to its banks to lap water and tried not to love it. On nights when the sky was personal, weak with the weight of its own stars, he made himself not love it. Its graveyards and low-lying rivers. Or just a house—solitary under a chinaberry tree; maybe a mule tethered and the light hitting its hide just so. Anything could stir him and he tried not to love it.
Loving is the same thing as thinking, if you do it right, with artistry. It is too bad that we live in a world in which not thinking or not loving can be preferable to the alternative, which I suppose I knew before this year but not as fully as I know it now.
Beloved was my favorite book I read this year, though there was was stiff competition: Women Talking by Miriam Toews, Dark Money by Jane Mayer, Citizen by Claudia Rankine, and Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino are also at the top of the list. Also this story by Miranda July is great.
When I was a kid, I used to reread the same books over and over. In second grade I transferred to a new school, where I cried every day. There was one chapter book in our classroom and I must have read it twenty times over the course of the year. It was about a girl named Sally and her family, and the annual summer trip they took to the beach. It was an old book, probably written in the 1950s or ’60s.
I’ve often wondered, as an adult, why there weren’t more chapter books in that classroom, or why my teacher didn’t provide more once it became obvious that I was reading that same one again and again. Maybe she didn’t notice that’s what I was doing.
I was middle child in a family that I love. Being a middle child sometimes means going unnoticed, which is not the same thing as being unloved, but can feel similar. I’m determined to notice my own daughter, which I’m sure she’ll one day grow to resent.
In middle school and high school I cycled through a self-imposed reading list of books that I read over and over. It included every Lois Duncan book in the Jarrett Middle School library circa 2001, Christopher Pike books, Kurt Vonnegut books, Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and The World According to Garp by John Irving, which is not appropriate for fourteen-year-olds. I don’t know why I didn’t think to read other books besides these, but I wonder if it had something to do with Sally and that damn beach.
I’ve only reread one book this year– The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson– which I think must be a new record for me. I’m sure that’s helped me realize new things, too. Put different stuff into your brain, get different stuff out.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with reading the same books again and again. I’ll always believe that retreading old ground is valuable in it’s own way, and doing the same things over and over again can be a meditation, which should never be discounted.